Moses ben Shem Tov de Leon

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MOSES BEN SHEM TOV DE LEON (c. 1240–1305), a leading kabbalist, author of the bulk of the *Zohar. (For later views on the authorship of the Zohar, see the addendum to *Zohar.) Moses was apparently born in Leon, near Castile – he also calls himself Moses "from the town of Leon," in his Shekel ha-Kodesh. Nothing is known of his teachers and early studies. Apart from religious study, he was also attracted to philosophy; *Maimonides'Guide of the Perplexed was copied for him in 1264 (Moscow, Ms. Guenzburg 771). Moses subsequently turned to *Kabbalah, and when wandering among the communities of Castile, he became friendly with the kabbalists there. He immersed himself in the lore of the Geronese school of kabbalists and in the traditions of the Gnostic circle of Moses of *Burgos and Todros *Abulafia and in the 1270s and 80s drew particularly close to Joseph *Gikatilla. Moved by an unusual enthusiasm, combined with the urge to counteract the influence of certain rationalistic trends, Moses composed various writings toward the close of the 1270s. Presented in the guise of pseudepigraphica, they were designed to propagate the doctrine of kabbalism in the pattern in which it had crystallized in his own mind. Completed before 1286, they form the Midrash ha-Ne'elam or "Mystical Midrash," and are the main substance of the Zohar. The later stratum in this composite work was written by another kabbalist. The major part of these writings is in Aramaic but Moses also composed Hebrew pseudepigraphica on ethics and the eschatology of the soul. The "Testament of R. Eliezer the Great," also called Orḥot Ḥayyim, is evidence of the author's hesitations in choosing between the tannaimEliezer b. *Hyrcanus and Simeon b. *Yoḥai as the hero of his pseudepigraphical construction. He also intended to compose a new Book of Enoch, parts of which he embodies in his Mishkan ha-Edut.

For a number of years, during the composition of the Zohar, and at least until 1291, he resided in Guadalajara, circulating from his home the first parts of the Zohar, which included a partly different version of the Midrash ha-Ne'elam (G. Scholem, in Sefer ha-Yovel… L. Ginzberg (1946), 425–46, Heb. section). In Guadalajara he was associated with Isaac ibn *Sahulah, who is the first known to quote from the Midrash ha-Ne'elam. He dedicated some of his books to Joseph b. Todros Abulafia in Toledo. After 1292 Moses led a wandering life until, in later years, he settled in Ávila, and then probably devoted himself almost exclusively to the circulation of copies of the Zohar. Meeting Isaac b. Samuel of *Acre in Valladolid in 1305, he invited him to Ávila to see the ancient original manuscript of the Zohar in his home. However, on his return Moses fell ill and died in Arévalo (Sefer Yuḥasin, ed. H. Filipowski, 88). His widow denied the existence of such a manuscript. The Hebrew writings which bear his name are based on the same sources as those utilized in the Zohar and they frequently make veiled allusions to it without specifying it by name. These writings and the portions of the Zohar composed by Moses frequently serve to clarify one another; the former can be regarded as the authentic exegesis of the doctrine enshrined in the Zohar.

Numerous copies of several of these works were made in succeeding generations, and it seems that Moses himself circulated the texts in different versions. According to Abraham b. Solomon of Torrutiel (Neubauer, Chronicles, 1 (1887), 105), he was the author of 24 books. Those fully or partly extant are Shoshan Edut (1286), which Moses mentions as his first work (Cambridge, Add. Ms. 505, includes about half the work); Sefer ha-Rimmon (1287), an exposition of the kabbalistic reasons for the mitzvot, wholly constructed on Zohar homiletics (several Mss., e.g., Oxford, Bodleian, Ms. Opp. 344); Or Zaru'a (1288/89), on the act of *Creation (Oxford, Bodleian, Ms. Poc. 296, other parts in Ms. Vatican 428, 80–90): this was apparently extended by another kabbalist to cover the whole section Bereshit, Genesis 1–6 (Ms. Vatican 212); Ha-Nefesh ha-Ḥakhamah, written in 1290 for his pupil Jacob, whom Isaac of Acre met after Moses' death: a corrupt text was published in 1608 which contained numerous addenda from a work by a contemporary Spanish kabbalist; a lengthy titleless commentary on the ten Sefirot (see *Kabbalah) and penances (a large part in Munich Ms. 47); Shekel ha-Kodesh (1292, publ. 1912; an excellent text in Oxford, Bodleian Ms. Opp. 563); Mishkan ha-Edut, on the fate of the soul after death, with a commentary on the vision of Ezekiel appearing in numerous manuscripts (Berlin, Vatican, et al.) as an independent book: both here and in his introduction to Or Zaru'a Moses divulges the reasons for his literary activities; Maskiyyot Kesef (written after 1293), a commentary on the prayers, a sequel to the lost Sefer Tappuḥei Zahav (Ms. Adler, 1577); responsa on points of Kabbalah (ed. by Tishby, in: Kobez al Jad, vol. 5, 1951); a treatise on various mystical themes (Schocken Library, Ms. Kab. 14, 78–99; Ms. Vatican 428); another commentary on the ten Sefirot, Sod Eser Sefirot Belimah…(Madrid, Escorial, Ms. G iii 14). Moses also wrote: Sefer Pardes ("Book of Paradise"); Sha'arei Ẓedek, on Ecclesiastes; Mashal ha-Kadmoni (after the title of his friend Isaac ibn Sahula's work); responsa on questions concerning Elijah; a commentary on Song of Songs; and a polemic directed against the Sadducees (or Karaites?), mentioned by Abner of *Burgos (rej, 18 (1889), 62). The Sefer ha-Shem (publ. in Heikhal ha-Shem, Venice, 1605) on the designations of the Sefirot, ascribed to him from the 15th century onward, was written by another kabbalist named Moses in the middle of the 14th century.


G. Scholem, Mysticism, ch. 5; idem, in: ks, 1 (1924), 45–52; idem, in: Madda'ei ha-Yahadut, 1 (1926), 16–29; idem, in: mgwj, 71 (1927), 109–23; S.D. Luzzatto, Iggerot Shadal (1891), 259; Steinschneider, Cat Bod, 1847–56; idem, in: hb, 10 (1870), 156–61; A. Jellinek, Moses ben Schem Tob de Leon und sein Verhaeltnis zum Sohar (1851); I. Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar, 2 vols. (1949), general introd. and introds. to different sidrot; Y. Nadav, in: Oẓar Yehudei Sefarad, 2 (1959), 69–76; E. Gottlieb, in: Tarbiz, 33 (1964), 287–313; I. Ta-Shma, ibid., 39 (1969), 184–94; 40 (1970), 105–6; S.Z. Havlin, ibid., 107–9.

[Gershom Scholem]